When I was sixteen years old, I didn’t do a lot. My baseball career was winding down, and the biggest concern in my life was navigating the treacheries of high school Algebra II. It was a simple life. Oh, and there was no coronavirus either, so hanging out with friends was a thing people often did back then. One cool August afternoon for instance, my friend Jon invited me to go mountain biking. Mind you, I owned a mountain bike, but I did not know what mountain biking was. All I used my bike for was riding the three miles to and from Flagler Palm Coast High School each day. It was nice exercise, and so in my mind, the idea of a casual ride off road sounded like fun. The thing is though, this was not a casual ride.
Upon arrival we started prepping our bikes for the ‘casual ride’, cruising across the road to the coquina sand trail that ran perpendicular. We rode under the jungle canopy a few yards and I passed a little hill of sediment rock which led deep out into the forest to our south. From that moment, Jon called back, “Bro, where are you going?” I turned around to see him poised at the top of the hill looking at me over his shoulder. “Where are you going?” I asked back. Jon laughed. “No, the trail is this way!” This was an alarming revelation to me, as I had thought we were going for a scenic ride out to rocky beach at the end of the road. “Oh, okay!” At this point, I was in for quite a surprise.
The onset of the trail greeted me with a ton of roots from the trees around us, something I immediately observed as a bug, not a feature. When you think you’re in for a peaceful beach cruise and you’re greeted with rocks and roots and, for all intents and purposes, a dangerous action sport, it’s somewhat of a rattling experience. So we get about half a mile down the trail (expect Jon in the comment section saying it was even less) and I yell forward, “Are we halfway there yet?” If memory serves, I believe Jon had to stop riding for a moment on account of how hard he was laughing. It was then he explained to me that we were most of the way up the trailhead, and maybe a twelfth or so through the actual length of the trail. That was the beginning of my first day ever mountain biking: consistently having no idea the things I was about to do were nearly as strenuous or physically taxing as they were.
That was my first day, and despite getting to the end and feeling like my lungs were on fire, I did go out again. And that time kicked my butt too. But I was prepared, so it was a little better. And so I finished the trail that time too, and soon thereafter I went out a third time, and a fourth and a fifth and so on. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the sport of mountain biking. The zone you get in by racing down the sloping trail, up and down hills, over jumps, and around tight corners out in the Florida jungle. I came to love the sport, and I came to love the area’s star venue, Mala Compra Mountain Bike Trail.
Mala Compra is a hidden gem of Flagler County nestled in between the beach and scenic A1A to its sides, and Palm Coast and St. Augustine above and below it. To get to the trail, Jon and I ventured north on I-95 to the next exit, east over the toll bridge, and out to A1A. From there we drove north to Bing’s Landing, next to the intracoastal waterway and the old plantation ruins. On your way there you’ll pass a Publix almost totally hidden by trees, some old seafood restaurants that seem to always have a crowd, and the old Citgo station where I’d stop to grab sports drinks on my way to the trail. It’s not the most happening section of the historic road, but it’s one that provides a lot to do and see for those who know which stones to turn.
To the south you’ll find the cities of Marineland and Flagler Beach; the former a previously bustling marine life attraction turned now into a biological research facility with dolphin tanks and a population of less than twenty, and the latter the cultural hub of the county, alive with fresh seafood spots and indie surf shops. There’s also a small RV park along the way, one perennially stuffed but whose clientele I’ve never been especially aware of.
To the north, you’ll get to Matanzas Inlet, a popular swimming and fishing stop where the Matanzas River meets the Atlantic Ocean. There the water is calm and easy for a toddler or a family pet to take a dip in. Driving further up the road you’ll get into the heart of St. John’s County and into the beach part of St. Augustine. Here you’ll find more seafood restaurants (noticing a theme?) and the big hotels built according to the 1980s’ vision of Florida.
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s quite a bit to do in and around Bing’s Landing and the trail itself. But that’s part of the beauty of Mala Compra: in rushing from one attraction to the next, it’s easy to miss one of the most immersive entry points into Florida’s beautiful coastal forests. If you get too caught up in the bustling industry around it, you just might miss something amazing.
The trail itself is six-mile dirt trail weaving between bay trees and palmetto bushes, over roots and coquina, and past ruins of the industrial revolution. It consists of naturally packed dirt so as to not disturb the nature around it. You may ride past native deer and squirrel, and, God forbid, you may find where the banana spiders have tried to form a web over the trail (hence why you always let one guy go before you in the morning). There are some relatively tame elevation changes, mostly in the forms of shallow drops that let you build momentum. The shade of the canopy is effective at warding off the deadly Florida sun, without which the trail may be unrideable.
Toward the two-thirds mark of the trail, there’s an optional segment known as ‘Cloud 9’, where the more experienced riders can divert to tackle more technical features that there are on the main trail. There you’ll find huge uphill climbs, narrow boardwalk bridges over the rocky forest floor, and at the section’s conclusion there’s a massive, thirty-foot plus sheer rock wall to ride down, one most riders would find quite daunting. I’ve never given it a stab myself, but Jon did on another of our rides, sticking the landing to his credit!
Upon returning to the regular section of trail, there are a few more technical features in the buildup to the end of the trail, which culminates in a deep drop full of catches and roots. I’ve hit the drop many times over the years, and I’ve had my fair share of wipeouts along the way.
My favorite thing to do once I’m done with a ride is to pedal back across the street to Bing’s Landing and plop down on the bench next to the boat launch on the river. Even on the hottest of days, you can find a gentle breeze and often a stunning sunset dancing across the ripples on the water. There the egrets wade through the sawgrass and dolphins break the quiet surface of the intracoastal. The pristine sense of peace taking in the river just after completing the gauntlet of chaos across the street is a beautiful contrast, and it’s one of the best experiences a young cyclist could find in Central Florida.
In the increasingly stressful world around us, I’ve had some of my most calming moments engaging in high-intensity bike riding out in the jungles of Mala Compra. Mountain biking obviously isn’t for everybody, but the attractions in and around the trail have something for anybody. So if you’re dying to get out of the house like I am but you’re worried about getting too close to other people, stop by Mala Compra. I’m inclined to believe you won’t regret it.
Special thanks to trail foreman Chip Grimes for photos and historical insight.